White House officials remain in a political quandry over whether President Reagan should ask Congress, as he promised in his campaign he would, to deregulate prices producers charge for natural gas.
Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan yesterday caused a stir when he declared during an appearance at the National Press Club, "At the current moment, the president is not going to propose deregulation of natural gas nor a windfall profits tax on it."
Officials at the Department of Energy who are pushing decontrol were caught off guard by Regan's remark. They said that as far as they knew, the president had not made up his mind whether to send legislation to Capitol Hill to accelerate the process of deregulation now occurring under the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1977.
Later Secretary Regan issued a clarification saying that his comment was not intended to preclude the possibility the president would send up a bill calling for faster decontrol. The issue "hasn't been decided yet," a Treasury spokesman said.
Nor at this point is anyone following the ups and downs of President Reagan's intentions toward speedier decontrol willing to predict how he will decide. One industry observer, noting the White House fear of political fallout from an action that would boost gas costs to busineses and consumers, put the odds at 50-50.
But Reagan's decision may not make much difference. Congress, in an election year when the economy is doing as badly as it is, would not be likely to pass such a bill with or without a windfall tax, he said.
Rep. James Jones (D-Okla.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, echoes that assessment. A decontrol bill, he said, "would run into two or three groups." Some members from snow-belt states would flatly oppose faster decontrol; some from the snow belt and the West would oppose it unless it carried a windfall tax; and the representatives from gas producing states, such as his own, do not want any tax, Jones explained.
In a year with several recesses and an early adjournment for the elections, Congress would not be able to reconcile these differences, Jones said.
A cabinet council recommended last year that Reagan seek faster decontrol. Last month, DOE officials circulated to key members of Congress and industry representatives a short working paper calling for an end to price controls on all gas by Jan. 1, 1985.